Before the United States went to the moon, Lebanon had a space program. OK, what’s the punchline? This prodigiously researched film reminds you that the most improbable documentaries are often inspired by facts that you can’t make up.
In the early 1960’s, a rocket was developed in Beirut by students at a university that trained the children of survivors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The families had taken refuge in Lebanon after fleeing Turkey. The rocket, called Cedar, was refined until the late 1960’s, when the government-funded program was scrapped under pressure from US, France, and Britain, the filmmakers tell us.
Science fiction? The documentary brings us testimony from men who worked on the rocket in their youth, complete with unimaginable archival footage of manufacturing and testing the device, which was never weaponized or sold to another country. By the 1970’s, when Civil War struck Lebanon, the researchers were dispersed throughout the world. One of the lead designers, Manoog Manoogian, left to get his doctorate in Texas, and now teaches at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Who knew?
Plenty of documentaries look at the creation of works of art by solitary dreamers. Few examine scientific discovery in relative isolation. The Lebanese Rocket Society saves a fascinating chapter in engineering history. As Middle Eastern countries plan nuclear futures, the film raises delicate questions about the West’s one-time monopoly on technological innovation. Criticwire grade: A [David D'Arcy]